Antoine Pevsner and his younger brother Naum Gabo worked in Moscow in the wake of the Russian Revolution, and both contributed heavily to the development of the Constructivist movement. Part artistic sensibility and part philosophy, Constructivism’s principles of transparent construction, functional use of physical forces, and material specificity were all in service of a collective, contingent experience for new Soviet audiences. Internal disagreements with artists such as El Lissitzky and Aleksander Rodchenko led Gabo and Pevsner in 1923 to permanently emigrate west, with Pevsner staying in France and Gabo eventually settling in the United States.
Operating within these new spheres of production and reception, Gabo and Pevsner diverged from the increasingly mass–cultural and utilitarian aims of the Soviet avant–garde. Instead, they moved toward the principles of modernist sculpture dominating Western Europe and the United States, which called for freestanding aesthetic objects to be contemplated from a distance. Pevsner’s stationary Construction, for instance, visually elicits a sense of passing time without literally utilizing it, unlike the famous revolving glass shapes within Constructivist architect Vladimir Tatlin’s design for Monument to the Third International, which were supposed to rotate on a precise schedule. On the whole, Pevsner’s later works tend to be self–contained, purely visual constructions that engage aesthetically, but not politically, with original Constructivist aims.
This artistic transformation helps explain the successful reception of these two sculptors in Western Europe and the United States in the middle of the twentieth century. Pevsner in particular constructed a number of large bronze sculptures that have since been sited in relation to works of modernist architecture. Saarinen was particularly fond of Pevsner’s work, which has found homes in at least two of his projects, including in the reflecting pool in our Laird Bell Law Quadrangle. Saarinen had advocated for a work by Pevsner to be placed on that particular site, but his death in 1961 left this process unresolved. Luckily, alumnus Alex Hillman (’24) donated Construction in Space and in the Third and Fourth Dimensions to the Law School in 1963. This cast is one of several made from a large–scale version of the original 1959 sculpture. It is purportedly numbered somewhere on the base, although records from the time disagree on how many casts were made—we know for certain that one cast is at Princeton University and the other in The Hague, Netherlands.
The 1964 installation of Construction in the new Saarinen complex was fraught with concerns about its placement. As the story goes, Phil Neal, Dean of the Law School at the time, was unsure about where to place the sculpture in relation to the fountain. Unable to consult Saarinen, he asked the opinion of then–University Architect Harold Hellman and world–renowned modernist architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, who was in the process of building the nearby School of Social Service Administration. According to Neal, they each independently pointed to the same northwestern spot in the reflecting pool. Allegedly, Saarinen’s old notes were discovered later that had identified that exact location as ideal for “something like a Pevsner” sculpture.
Although some at the university originally objected to the asymmetry of the placement, Pevsner’s work still sits in the northwestern corner of the pool. It visually dominates neither the reflecting pool nor the library, but enhances the features of each. The linear striations on the sculpture’s surface and the thin, angular planes out of which it is made are in tension with the hyperbolic curves that define the entire form; conversely, the library façade’s alternatingly angled panes of glass suggest a kind of sinuous wave that doesn’t quite match its hard–edged exterior. The opulent, shiny bronze of the sculpture reflects and diffracts light in ways that mirror the rippling effect of the pool of water in which it sits and the rhythmic glass façade of the library against which it stands. The bouncing light between these three elements results in their close conversation with one another. The pool reflects the library and the sculpture, and, from some angles, the glass of the library reflects the sculpture in turn.
Renovations to the Saarinen complex in 2008 only strengthened this relationship: the freed–up space inside the library offers better views of the sculpture, and the reengineered zero–depth pool makes for a cleaner and more consistent reflection of the work. In the end, the Law School’s Quadrangle serves as a historic model of a kind of public aesthetic sanctuary, where architecture, art, and design are integrated by a single vision in a way exemplary of the immediate postwar period. Pevsner’s Construction is as much a part of the quadrangle’s architecture as the buildings.